► Tesla Model 3 electric car review
► Top of the table performance
► Standard Range Plus, Long Range and Performance tested
Whichever way you look at it, the Tesla Model 3 is a groundbreaking car: its range, tech and Supercharger network make it a difficult package to beat for £500-ish per month.
New opposition is constantly cropping up, but even the likes of the new Hyundai Ioniq 5, Audi Q4 e-Tron and Polestar 2 aren't quite as complete.
In the UK the Model 3 often pops up into the top 10 chart of bestsellers, no doubt helped in the age of social distancing by the fact that Tesla does its business almost entirely online.
There are three variants of the Model 3 on sale currently: the Standard Range Plus, Long Range and Performance.
Group test: Tesla Model 3 versus the competition
In this review we cover:
Tesla Model 3 design and engineering
The Model 3 flies in the face of the car industry's obsession to rush headlong into the arms of the lardy SUV. It's a relatively compact thing, and its modest dimensions strike you the moment you clap eyes on it. At 4694mm long and 2088mm wide, including door mirrors, it's shorter than the established junior execs, such as the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4, but has managed to remain recognisably a Tesla thanks to its low nose, tapering rear and ample glasshouse. Think of it as a Model S scaled down and viewed from the bottom of a beer glass.
It might share the Model S's nose and rump, but this is a more conventional saloon rear end, albeit one whose boot is cleverly hinged to allow a deep opening. For those looking for increased practicality, you're going to have to wait for the Tesla Model Y, which is to the 3 what the Model X is to the S. It should hit the UK in 2022 if you can wait that long.
It's worth pointing out that battery capacities are not confirmed by Tesla these days. Perhaps anxious not to be pumping out cells that will be superseded each year, the company merely quotes the new, numberless model names instead.
The Standard Range Plus WLTP range is 278 miles, the Performance stretches to 352 miles, but the Long Range (unsurprisingly) has the longest range, at 360 miles. The entry-level model is rear-wheel drive only; the top two have dual motors and all-wheel drive.
On a cold December morning we collected a Standard Range Plus car indicating it had 219 miles of range, and after a 48-mile journey (mostly on the motorway, with the heating, heated seats and stereo all in operation) that figure had fallen to 160 miles. So the Model 3 still loses more range than miles driven in low temperatures, but it still performs better than most other electric cars in these conditions.
Interior: a minimalist cabin
Even as you approach the Tesla Model 3's interior, it's apparent this car does things differently. There is no key, rather you use an RFID card (see below) or you can access the car via your smartphone. In our testing, we ended up wafting the card up and down the B-pillar to find the secret spot rather too often - and then had to repeat the process inside before the car would set off. This seems a backward step from the keyless Model S (but may be circumnavigated if you place your pre-configured phone in the correct cradle and we're sure owners will quickly adapt).
Note also the unusual, thin chromed door handles. No auto-pop-out theatrics here: you tap one end, nudging the rest of the handle out to open it manually. They open from the inside differently, too - with a simple door switch that looks just like an electric window button.
This is a roomy and minimalist cabin. The windscreen is panoramic, and the scuttle is low, meaning that the view forwards is clear and commanding, even if you don’t sit with the seat in a high position. That full-length glass sunroof makes it bright and airy, and the floor is mercifully flat.
There are no buttons on the centre console, just a pair of roller-knobs on the steering wheel, four window switches on the door and (buried on the seat) the usual electric backrest and squab adjusters. It's uncluttered and lovely - if you like controlling everything from a touchscreen. Happily, the Tesla Model 3's 15-inch screen is pin-sharp, high-res and unerringly logical, even if you must learn the intricacies first (we stumbled with the door mirror adjustment for a good five minutes...).
Below that you'll find twin fixed inductive pads that allow wireless charging of your phone. However your phone just sits there staring at you which is annoying because you can see it flashing with notifications.
The rear passenger compartment is especially clever, where a tall adult can fit comfortably in the middle seat, thanks to a cleverly sculpted centre console armrest with space for a fifth person's feet. Those in the rear will find their heads close to the panoramic screen, and if the driver gets enthusiastic in corners, there’s a real risk of banged heads on the bulky cant rail above the window.
Revealed: the quickest electric cars and EVs
How does the Tesla Model 3 drive?
The acid test. Much of the experience will be familiar to anyone who's driven a Tesla Model S (or, indeed, any electric car). Niceties such as the Mercedes-Benz-style push-to-hold parking brake remain, but any remaining vestiges of Daimler switchgear have now been eliminated. Quality is good enough in here. It's a step-change over the ageing Model S and we'd judge that users in this price bracket will be quite comfortable with the trim and materials used, with slush-moulded, soft-feel materials used throughout.
The body rigidity is excellent, and the cabin is creak-free on the roughest of B-roads. But standards are high in this sector and it can't quite live with the exquisitely built cabins of the Audi A4 or BMW 3-series. It's well built, but lacks that last 10% of heft and precision – and it’s more than enough to live with the market sector left-fielders such as the Volvo S60, Jaguar XE and Alfa Romeo Giulia.
We noted a few ergonomic inconveniences, too. The windscreen A-pillars are noticeably thick and the rather ugly steering wheel is thick, chunky to hold. One quirky detail which grated was the shroud around the forward-facing camera, which kept masking the view ahead every time we looked at the rear-view mirror.
This is an extremely slippery shape; Tesla quotes a drag coefficient of just 0.23, and the car does indeed cleave through the air quietly and with minimal fuss. There is some thumping from the large 20-inch alloy wheels standard on the Performance model, but it's a refined, quiet place to be on a variety of UK roads.
What about Autopilot?
Designed for long, straight American freeways, we were interested to see how the Autopilot system performs on the UK's congested and bendier motorways. On the whole, it works well – and you can see that with each software update, the system becomes more intuitive, less nervy, and more capable of dealing with busy situations. Don't imagine you'll be driving hands-off, though – the car will nag you if you're off the wheel for more than 20 seconds or so, and if there are three transgressions, the Autopilot system is deactivated.
To operate it, you tap the transmission selector down (once for adaptive cruise, twice for Autopilot) and then just rest your hands on the wheel. Want to change lane, then you tap the indicator and wait for the car to gently ease you across the lanes. As for Autopiloting on UK motorways, it's not perfect – this is a system designed to relax the driver and encourages delicate input, while maintaining full alertness on the road ahead.
Newbies will definitely need time to adapt to its sensitivity, and forgiveness for the times it applies the brakes for no apparent reason. As a semi-autonomous driving aid, it's about seven-tenths of the way there for UK and European drivers.
What about the Tesla Model 3 Performance?
Performance is aptly ludicrous: the 'Ludicrous' word isn't used on the Model 3, but this model feels every bit as fast as the 3.1sec 0-60mph claim. It is monumentally, addictively rapid, the horizon reeling in at warp-speed on full throttle, with a silent, whirry accelerative thrust. Looking at the specs below, even the regular Teslas will be pretty quick. The range-topping one is insanely so.
Steering is sublime - beautifully weighted and superbly accurate. In addition, this is one of the quickest steering racks we've experienced on a mainstream saloon since the original Alfa Romeo 156; it lends a pointy agility to the way the Model 3 drives. You can tailor the steering weight to personal preference, but European tastes are probably most closely tuned to the firmest setting in Track Mode.
Equally impressive is the handling. You think it into a corner and it darts into the apex with all the precision of a Ferrari V8. It's seriously fast to react, yet it doesn't feel nervous or on edge at a motorway cruise. It feels right-sized for the UK - a good compact shape that's not too bulky for Britain's busy roads. Despite its unerring agility (impressive for an 1800kg saloon), the ride quality is on the right side of acceptable, with decent damping, and enough compliance, even on 20-inch wheels.
What about the Performance model’s Track Mode?
We were given the opportunity to spend the day at Paul Ricard exploring the Model 3’s limits, both on track and at the skid pan. The system uses a combination of distributing the dual motors’ torque split, adaptive thermal controls for them, a low centre-of-gravity, and using brake force – via its own in-house developed system. Tesla is very proud of what it’s achieved, building on what it says is a very effective package - a 48:52 weight distribution, Brembo performance brakes and bespoke Michelin P44S tyres.
Tesla says in Track Mode, it maximises the motors to turn the car, the brakes to make it faster in corners, the battery to store more electricity, and radiators to decelerate the car. And the net result is that they say it makes an average driver go faster and more confidently on track – and that in ultimate terms, it’s 5% per lap faster at any given race circuit.
That’s all well and good, but how does engaging Track Mode make the Model 3 better? In standard mode, it handles faithfully and responsively, and balances speed and low drama eerily well. Stick it in Track Mode and the steering sharpens up, turn-in gets even more aggressive, and butchering the throttle on a constant steering axis will have you drifting like a pro. But for those who don’t need to showboat, rest assured that it becomes a whole lot more biddable and can literally point, shoot and go like hell.
It won’t defy the laws of physics, though. You’re always aware of its 1800kg kerbweight, and although it turns and steers crisply, the Tesla Model 3 will still understeer if you’re timid with the throttle or carry too much entry speed, and there’s still a fair bit of body roll to contend with.
But the brakes are strong and progressive, the body control is good, and the inherent speed is undoubtedly there, even if the drama (and ultimately excitement) isn’t. Still, it’s an impressive effort.
Tesla Model 3 prices and specs in the UK
Tesla offers three models in its UK range, and has an interesting span of prices. There are also few interior and equipment options as it stands, making this one of the few cars in this sector with a slim-looking price range. We applaud that approach.
The Tesla Supercharger network now features more than 600 charging points spread across several dozen locations throughout the UK, so long-distance driving in a Tesla will be entirely feasible for most drivers. There are hundreds of destination chargers at hotels, clubs and other private venues too. Tesla quotes 150 miles of range in half an hour if you're on a Supercharger; or 37 miles an hour of recharging on a dedicated home charger. As for three-pin charging – don't bother, unless it's an emergency and you have a lot of time on your hands.
It's also worth noting that you can buy a Tesla Model 3 online. There are dealers, of course, but the newly introduced Tesla Chat and Tesla Virtual Consultation mean that you can go through your options without the need to leave your home. You can even buy and have the car delivered to your house in the same manner, without trying it out – and if you don't get on with it, you can send it back after a week, no quibbles.
If you do want to try before you buy, Tesla dealers can offer a contactless test drive, where the car is opened remotely for you, the screen shows a 15-minute instruction video, and then you're free to go and drive. Perhaps this is why they proved so popular during the UK lockdown.
The Tesla Model 3 is a winner – it has an impressive real-world battery range, a roomy and airy cabin, drives beautifully in all versions, and offers driver-assistance tech that largely works well in the UK. Despite nearly all controls being accessed via the central touchscreen, it all works well – as if the car's designers are as well versed in infotainment operating systems as they are in vehicle dynamics.
It's not quite perfect – no car is – and there will be some who would bemoan the lack of SUV-style practicalities, while the fastback shape hints at a more useful hatchback the car didn't receive. There are already some murmurings about less-than optimum customer service when things go wrong, too – so a word to the wise if you're thinking of moving across from a more established premium player... you won't feel quite as loved as you might hope if things go wrong.
But overall, and with these caveats in mind, the Tesla Model 3 comes highly recommended. It's still the most usable electric car on the market, thanks to Tesla's brilliant Supercharger network, while the well-planned interior is bristling with clever design and storage solutions that make day-to-day use even more enjoyable. Given it's been on sale for some time now, we're still waiting for the opposition at this price point to catch up.
You could look at the extremely capable Porsche Taycan or Audi e-tron GT, but those cars are twice the price. The BMW i4 is due in November 2021 - that could be the Model 3’s closest challenger to date.
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